CHAPTER 34

I need to forget, so take me to Florida

I've got some regrets, I'll bury them in Florida

Tell me I'm despicable, say it's unforgivable

What a crash, what a rush, fuck me up, Florida

~ Taylor Swift, feat. Florence + The Machine, Florida!

EPOV

I sat next to the hospital bed, my fingers absentmindedly tracing over the contours of her knuckles. The steady beat of her heart beeped through the room. The IV full of nutrients and much-needed hydration was taped over her other hand. As well as a mild sedative to help her sleep. To stay asleep.

Because the last thirty-six hours had been fucking chaos.

Her pointer finger twitched against my own.

Guilt ate at the lining of my stomach, churning and gnawing and squeezing my chest in time with the heart beating through the room.

Aiden let out an ungodly loud snore from the other side of the bed. He had passed out nearly as soon as he fell into the chair, but still refused to leave.

How Bella managed to calmly walk herself backstage with a smile plastered on her face before passing out was a goddamn mystery to me. The woman was… Christ she was a machine when she wanted to be. When she needed to be.

She had been silent from the time she showered until she started vocal warm ups. She refused to let her makeup artist cover up the bruises around each of her biceps in the perfect shape of my step-brother's hands. And I saw it. I saw the moment she turned all of herself off in order to become the picture perfect performer she wanted the crowd to see.

Even watching her from the stage, staying close enough to be able to get to her were anything to happen but maintaining enough distance not to disrupt the show, it was nearly impossible for the average eye to see the cracks in her.

I saw each fucking one.

I saw her flinch at the fireworks, watched her eyes dart around the stage a few too many times as if she thought someone was coming up behind her. And if Isabella Cullen is going to break character and lean on my shoulder, however playfully, during a live show she had to have been fucking dead on her feet. And that was only about an hour in, during Delicate.

She didn't do it for herself. She didn't do it for the money. She did it for the ninety thousand people she refused to disappoint. But fuck if I didn't want to grab her and run as soon as I saw that same girl from the footage Lawrence released. The girl who stopped her tears and put a smile on her face because some jackass in a suit told her to. The girl who smiled on her way into fucking rehab.

No one else was making her do it this time, but I knew that if she had been raised in a more lenient industry she wouldn't always feel the need to push herself to the point of absolute exhaustion.

There was a soft knock at the door before Adeline quietly squeezed herself in the room in an attempt to keep the bustling hallway noise outside. Her eyes went to Aiden first, softening when she saw him asleep. She set a cup of coffee on the table beside him before reaching an arm out and handing me one as well.

"Thank you," I said, taking a sip in an attempt to get my voice to not sound like I had been smoking for the last fifty years. I watched Adeline hesitate as she looked Bella over and gave her a small nod to ask whatever was on her mind.

Despite the somewhat rocky first few months after we found out about Adeline and her relationship with Aiden, more importantly her career path, she was a perfect fit in the family. She was very obviously as in love with my son as he was with her, she was an excellent mother to Ella, and she had proven herself to be as kind and loyal to him and our family as anyone.

She made me feel like maybe I wouldn't have been a complete and utter failure if we had a daughter instead of a son. Watching her come into her own at the firm and in the family, it was nice to watch. A complete one-eighty to how growing us as a Cullen was before.

"Why does she do it?" Adeline asked quietly. "I know—I know being her takes commitment and sacrifice but no one should have to work in the conditions she just did."

I nodded, sighing as I sandwiched her hand in both of mine. "Because she was raised by a mother who hated her and a father who was quick to completely turn his back on her when she married me. Because she grew up believing her worth was directly tied to how hard she worked and how loud the applause was. Hell, half of the reason she did it was because she didn't want anyone to think they got the better of her," I chuckled humorlessly to myself.

Sighing, I finished, "She did it because she has never felt like she was good enough for the people who support her, no matter how hard she tries."

A sigh I would recognize anywhere broke through the silence. "That's just a fancy way of calling me stubborn," Bella grumbled, eyes squeezing shut one last time before squinting open.

I cleared my throat, bringing the back of her palm up to my lips. "Yes," I sighed against her skin. "It is."

"I'll go get a doctor," Adeline said quickly, squeezing herself out into the bustling hospital.

Bella sighed, attempting to sit herself up. Rather unsuccessfully until I pressed the button to lift her bed in a better position. "I hate hospitals," she grumbled under her breath.

"I know. We didn't have many options. You were–you were not in a good condition after the show."

She flinched. Eyes meeting mine.

Bottomless pits of sadness and hurt swirling around her irises. They disappeared as soon as the door opened again.

Aiden woke himself up with a snore as the doctor walked in.

"Hello, Mrs. Cullen. I'm Doctor Michaels. I've been overseeing your care. How are you feeling?"

"Fine," Bella lied, clearing her throat. Her voice was usually a scratchy mess the day after a show. She'd been asleep for a good fourteen hours by now, so it sounded better than I expected.

Doctor Michaels nodded, looking down at the chart in her hands. "Well, your vitals are back to normal. You've been getting some much-needed hydration and nutrients intravenously. I'll have a late lunch brought up for you and as long as you can keep the food down we'll discharge you by this evening."

"Thank you, Doctor," I said before Bella could argue.

As soon as Doctor Michaels was out of the door, Aiden hopped to his feet. "I'll go get you something better than hospital food. What sounds good? Pasta? Steak? A burger? You know what, I'll get options."

He was out the door before he finished his sentence.

"He was very worried about you," I said quietly.

My wife's eyes met mine. She took a deep but unsteady breath. "I'm sorry."

It was a knife to the gut.

Her apologizing to me.

"You're–" I shook my head. "Please, do not apologize for my mistakes."

Her brows furrowed, mouth open to argue right as the door swung open again.

Delilah carefully shut the door behind her while balancing an impressive flower arrangement in her arms. Very obviously being as sneakily quiet as she could before turning around to see Bella and I staring at her.

"Oh. I didn't know you were awake. Awkward. Anyway, these are for you. Obviously. From the dancers," she went on, ever the mini-me of Alice as she spoke and spoke until someone stopped her.

"Thank you," Bella said quietly, watching as Delilah placed the arrangement on the windowsill.

Delilah hesitated in the middle of the room. "How do you feel?"

"Okay," Bella answered, eying our niece with a critical eye. "Are you okay?"
Delilah huffed out a laugh. Wide blue eyes darting from Bella to me for a few moments before she spoke. "Everyone else doesn't really get it. Why you–but I do. I know better than anyone the power your name holds in this industry because I'm in it. I can't tell you how many times I've walked into an audition to the panel talking shit about my weight or technique or even far more… inappropriate comments. Then they read my name. Have a little chat amongst themselves about where they've heard Whitlock before. And as soon as I tell them I'm your niece, they sit up straighter. Take me seriously. Respect me in a way they don't respect anyone else in the room."

Delilah swallowed thickly. "And I know you went through hell to get that kind of respect for yourself. But I just… thought you should know. That you changed everything for me. For a lot of women in the business. You changed things for the better. And we appreciate it."

I watched Bella blink back tears.

Delilah scurried out of the room before either of us could respond.

"I need to get out of here," Bella muttered, eyes wide as she looked around the hospital room.

It was a luxury suite, resembling more of a hotel room than a hospital room. But it was still a hospital. Still had that sterile scent in the air, the beeping that was steadily increasing thrumming through the room. Still a place where too many bad things had happened for her, for both of us.

I pressed my lips to her forehead, lingering until the panic that had been gnawing at my gut since I heard her car crash in my audio feed slowly started to disappear.

Love|Power–

The house was prepared as expected. It was one of a handful of safehouses I had stashed around the country. I had a few internationally as well, but we didn't want to spend half of our time on a plane. So, Florida it was.

Bella was keeping herself together for the time being. She stayed glued to my side, hand clasped in mine or wrapped around my bicep if I needed both hands for anything. She was jumpy and skittish and every flinch felt like a punch to the gut. Every forced smile and whisper of, 'I'm okay,' when a family member asked dug a knife deeper into my chest.

She wasn't okay.

I wasn't okay.

None of it was okay.

As soon as the door clicked shut behind us, the crisp white walls and light wooden floors of our Floridian sanctuary for the next few weeks lighting up in the midnight glow of the moon, a sob escaped Bella's throat.

I caught her around the waist before she fell to the ground.

BPOV

I had to actively focus to get my eyes to open. Not out of exhaustion, though I could still feel a bone-deep tiredness in my limbs. But because my lashes were practically glued together after the hours of uncontrollable tears.

I finally won the battle after a few seconds of attempting to tear my eyes open and was met with a beautiful but unfamiliar room. All whites and creams and light wood and salt air. I only glanced around for a moment before collapsing back into bed.

I curled myself closer to my husband's side. His arms tightened around me, but he stayed quiet, lips brushing against the top of my head in a tender kiss that had me fighting back a lump in my throat.

And I tried. Tried so fucking hard to stop them. But as soon as the last three days floated through my mind again, the tears started freely flowing down my cheeks again.

Love|Power–

I woke with a jump, eyes popping open and heart pounding. The bed was empty, the other side cold. Before any panic could settle in, I heard a twinkling of music floating down the hall.

The house was a mystery to me still. I wasn't even all that certain of what state we were in. I was fairly certain we were still in the country, though I could be wrong. But I rolled out of bed, wrapped a waiting soft cotton robe around my bare shoulders, and started wandering through halls until I got closer to the music.

Edward and I had spent a good amount of time sequestered on private islands together. Enough that, sometimes when boredom would start to settle in, he would watch me play piano until he somehow learned it himself.

The man was annoyingly smart.

And also a talented piano player by this point.

I could recognize his playing in my dreams. It was soft and delicate and one of my favorite sounds in the world.

He didn't flinch as I sat beside him. His fingers moved gracefully over the keys, softly playing a simple melody that I tried to focus on instead of the racing thoughts that threatened to take over.

My head fell to his shoulder as my eyes drifted shut.

Managing my emotions… it had never been a specialty of mine. I wasn't good at processing things as they happened, accepting things I didn't like or moving on from things I loved. I wasn't good at it. Organizing my thoughts, understanding how I felt about things… again, not my specialty.

That was where writing came into my life. It was easier, writing my feelings rather than feeling them. Putting them into words and letting them go. Letting them speak for themselves was easier than sorting through them on my own.

I'd had many mental health professionals tell me it wasn't a great coping mechanism for the long run, but they were easily replaced.

So, as I sat by my husband's side I closed my eyes and attempted to sort through the tangle of fear and uncertainty and anxiety and sadness that were clouding my thoughts as he played.

Over and over, the sight of Lawrence sitting in front of me, telling me I had no power always ended up at the front of my mind.

And in plain sight you hid

But you are what you did

And I'll forget you but I'll never forgive

The smallest man who ever lived

Love|Power–

Later that night, Edward and I sat on the outdoor deck of the house. It was a beautiful place, cozy and clean and far too big for only the two of us. But that was Edward's style.

I took a small sip of the ice water Edward had set in front of me as I looked out over the pool. Storm clouds lingered in the distance. Fitting for the mood.

"I really thought–" I stopped myself. It was pathetic and naive and stupid. "I really thought it was all somehow a big misunderstanding. That he wasn't–that he wouldn't…"

Pathetic.

Naive.

Stupid.

O'Malley, I could understand. Didn't know the guy, didn't have any connection to him, knew that if he wanted to fuck with Edward I was the best way for him to do that. I didn't care that he wanted me dead.

Caius, I also understood. Again, didn't know the man, and didn't care that he wanted to slit my throat.

Even Zane and Shay, they were assholed. I hated them, they hated me. It was a mutually agreed upon rivalry.

Lawrence… that was the one that hurt. To my fucking core.

I met the man when I was sixteen-years-old. Became an emancipated minor and trusted him to help me build my career. Trusted him for nearly forty goddamn years.

It wasn't like we had a passing friendship. We weren't simply business partners or acquaintances.

He was one of the first people outside of the family to know I had Aiden. He sent me flowers every year on my birthday, remembering it more than any parent–biological or adopted–ever had. He was one of the only friends I actually had.

So accepting that the guy who essentially raised me was the same man who would have been happy to see me bleed in front of him was a hard fucking pill to swallow.

I should have accepted it months ago. From day one, when he started saying my career was bought I should have cut the string. I should have believed it when he slapped me across the face. Should have gotten the hint from the thousand of other knives I had in my back.

But I was pathetic enough to hope. Naive enough to think it was all a big misunderstanding. Stupid enough to think one day we could move past it.

"I know," Edward said softly, arm tightening around my shoulder.

I twisted my attention up to him. To the sharp line of his jaw and the way the humidity made the copper hair at the base of his neck slightly curlier than normal. The green eyes that were hard and tense but softened just slightly as he met my gaze.

It was very easy to call myself a pathetic, naive, stupid woman who was easily fooled. I could list out a hundred horrible decisions I had made over the years.

But the one thing… the single good thing I had ever done was finding Edward Cullen. Going home with the man on a whim could have ended up in an incredible disaster, but he was the one person I could always count on. The one person I could trust with my mind, body, and soul without a second thought.

The one thing I did right in my life.

My throat tightened. If I hadn't spent an ungodly amount of time crying the last however many hours, tears would have started streaming down my face.

"Please don't ever leave me," I gasped out, throat nearly closing on me before I could finish.

I was in his arms before a fresh batch of tears could form behind my eyes.

I buried my head in his shoulder, breathing in the comforting scent of amber and soap and Edward in an attempt to get myself to calm down.

He pulled me closer, legs on either side of his lap as I desperately clung to him. "Never, love," he said sternly. He pulled back slightly, tugging my neck back away from his shoulder and forcing me to meet his eyes. "It's been you and me from day fucking one, Bella. Always."

I nodded, blinking away what I hoped was my last round of tears before he placed a whisper soft kiss to my lips.

"I'm sorry," I breathed out. Finishing my thought before he could interrupt. "I know you're mad I did the show. It was stupid, but I–"

"I'm not mad," he interrupted. "Not at you. I know why you did it."

I sighed. "Sometimes I don't know why I did it."

Edward's lips cocked up just slightly to the side. "You did it because people often underestimate just how much you'll inconvenience yourself to prove a point."

I coughed out a laugh and leaned down for a kiss. "I love you."

His hands tightened around my waist. "I love you."

I relaxed into him. Barely noticing it when he stood and started making his way to the bedroom.

"I'm tired of resting," I grumbled into his neck.

"Who said we were going to rest?"

I beamed down at him until I was gently plopped onto the fluffy white bed of the master bedroom. I watched from my perfect vantage point as he tossed his gray t-shirt aside and started unbuttoning his jeans.

It didn't matter how often I had seen the man naked, it was always quite the sight. The muscles that bulged with every twitch, the splattering of ink he had on his arms and back, the skin that I knew tasted delicious.

He leaned over me, grabbing my hands before they could tear away my own clothing and pinning them to the top of the bed.

"I thought I lost you," he breathed out against my neck. "I thought–goddamnit I thought I was going to have to spend the rest of my life without you. And I–fuck–I can't even breathe when I think about how fucking bad things could have gone, Bella. You–"

I caught him by surprise, gently rolling him onto his back and settling myself above him. My fingers ran through his hair, the soft strands so familiar to me by this point in my life you'd think the texture didn't give me a flutter of butterflies in my stomach.

It still did. Every time.

"I'm okay," I whispered against his lips, peppering kisses along his jaw, over his cheeks, on his forehead, everywhere I could reach. "I'm okay."

It wasn't until there was nothing but skin between us, until I felt the steady weight of him above me as we moved together that I felt like I could breathe again.

Love|Power–

Every muscle in my body was sore. Muscles I didn't know existed were suddenly screaming at me in anger. But I couldn't help but feel good. So so good knowing I did it. Survived my first day. It was about fourteen hours of constant go go go, but I did it. And loved every second.

I had just washed off the days worth of makeup and sweat and real and fake dirt from my face when there was a knock at my trailer door.

"May I come in?"

I smiled over at Lawrence, even through the sudden panic at the idea that he might have come to fire me shot through my veins. "Yeah."

"You did a really good job today, Bella," he said gently, sitting on the small couch behind me. I took a seat across from him. "And I know what you did to be here. Leaving your family behind, emancipating yourself so you could work without them around, trusting me when I stopped you in a parking lot of all places," he chuckled, running a seemingly nervous hand through his hair.

Lawrence was only a handful of years older than me. He was a young director, but he was already good. Good enough to get one of the most anticipated book-to-movie adaptations in years.

That slight moment of nerves on him made me feel a little less alone. Like I wasn't the only one waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"I got you something. A… thank you, congratulations, and good luck present all in one."

I shook my head. "You didn't have to–"

He opened a pale blue box before I could finish, more diamonds than I had ever seen strung together in a delicate bracelet.

"Hollywood is a hell hole. But people like you, people with that raw talent that you have, you make it worthwhile. Make filmmaking into the art it is. This is day one of a very long career for you, Bella. If you ever need anything, you come to me. Promise?"

I woke with a start.

Heart racing. Tears running down my face. Every muscle in my body tense.

I gave myself a few seconds and a handful of deep breaths to calm down before I looked over at Edward. He was peacefully passed out beside me, soft snores coming from him telling me he was getting some much needed deep sleep.

Sliding out of bed, I grabbed my discarded silk robe from the chaise in front of the bed and slid into the en suite.

With the amount of traveling I did, I had a hell of a lot of bags. Overnight bags and duplicate bags of cosmetics and toiletries I wanted to always have. But there was one bag, my jewelry bag, that I took everywhere. Kept all of my favorite things in it.

My wedding rings were always safely stored there when I was on stage. My stack of necklaces Edward gave me as a wedding present as well. And my long forgotten tennis bracelet I didn't take off for nearly the first two years of my career.

I hadn't thought about it in years. Decades probably.

But I always kept it with me in the beginning. A good luck charm. A reminder I wasn't alone. A symbol of where I started.

I squeezed it in my palm and tiptoed out of the room. Edward still snored softly in bed. I pressed a kiss to his forehead as I slid out the door.

The house was on the beach. Or as close as it could get. There was even a private little pier connected to the house to walk out on.

I stood there for a long time, bracelet in hand, watching the angry water splash around as another storm moved its way in.

I love you, I thought, staring down at the bracelet. It's ruining my life.

It was never a romantic love. But the kind of love that formed after years and years of constant companionship. Up until earlier this year I would have done pretty much anything Lawrence needed because I thought he was my friend. One of my oldest and truest.

"Old habits die screaming," I mumbled to myself, running my thumb over the bracelet that had seen better days.

Even now I had still been holding out hope. That it was all going to be okay, that Lawrence wasn't doing what he was so obviously doing.

I had no choice but to accept it now. With stitches in my neck and bruises still healing on my arms. With the vision of him sitting across from me with that cocky smile always floating around in the back of my mind.

"You're not in a position of power here, Bella."

I had known from the beginning that was all this was. Power. Everyone craved it. I had it to spare. I had a husband with a chokehold on the entire underground businesses of Chicago and hand in it across the country. My fingerprints were littered across the entertainment industry and my name came with an undertone of fear and respect.

I had done my best not to let it get to my head. Not to abuse that power everyone was so eager to try and steal from me.

Fuck it.

"Who's afraid of little old me?" I muttered to myself as I let the bracelet slip from my fingers and fall into the angry water. "You should be."

A/N: I know I say this about like every other chapter, but this has to be one of my favorites. There are quite a few lyrics/quotes in it:

The "People often underestimate how much I'll inconvenience myself to prove a point," is something Taylor Swift said at a film festival I think - maybe not word for word but I wrote it in my notes ages ago and knew I needed to throw it in here

Lyrics mentioned from the following songs:

The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived

Fortnight

The Black Dog

Who's Afraid of Little Old Me?